Monday, November 29, 2010

Friends, Grecians, Countrymen - Lend Me Your Ears - PLEASE!

The “Ear-Zoom” recently arrived at our front door by carrier. Janice ordered this hearing assist for me, in the hope that springs eternal; she dreams that, paired with my much more pricey hearing aid, she will no longer have to endure the higher volume of the television set, “juiced up” by me. I’m just trying to make sense of the dialogue on Law & Order or NCIS! She seems concerned that the neighbors may not want not to hear the programs that we watch. Go figure! Acknowledging her concerns, I have told her, in my best client-centered, counselor-training-speak, that I “hear what she is saying.”

The conversation at our house put me to thinking about ears – not just hearing, but ears. I can remember in my lifetime when ears, except for ladies ear-rings, were almost completed ignored by me. If you have ever seen the size of my ears, you would be tempted to wonder how I could bypass these protruding, curvaceous pieces of flesh, that, as some in my culture were prone to say, “look like a taxicab coming down the street with its doors open.” Mother often counseled me to wash mine, but, other than that, I actually paid little attention to them. Much later in my life, when I endured attacks of dizziness related to inner-ear imbalance problems, these two appendages and the mysteries within them would make themselves inconveniently known to me. I guess they were tired of being ignored.

As I reflect on it, ears are rather prominent in our world, not always for their hearing and balance functions, but as convenient places for hanging things. Of course, they have for many years been useful hangers for spectacles. My Mom & Pop grocery store-owner grandfather always had at least one pencil wedged behind an ear.

The other day, I saw a woman with five holes in each ear and five different pieces of jewelry – in each ear! Reminded me of a girl one of my sons once dated whom I referred to as the “love is a many punctured thing” girl. I can remember when men began to wear ear-rings and the controversy that it caused, including the “left is right” code with its gender-bending implications. Remember when “Big Mike” took a bite?

In recent years, ears have also been called on for multitasking by becoming convenient resting places for “hands free” telephone senders and receivers. Many of us routinely listen to music now on our ear-phone-equipped IPods and other, similar devices. When I get on the airplane, someone always has one of those expensive head-sets that block out the disturbing ambient sounds of nearby humanity and the mechanisms which we require.

In the seventies, in my culture, men allowed their hair to grow long and, for the first time, some of us found “follicle shelter” for our protruding ears. Recently, some people have, in the name of fashion, begun to enlarge holes in their ears and place all sorts of “decorative items” in the now vacant space. If Bobbie Burns would pardon me, I might say: “Oh, the gift, the giftie gee us to see our ears as others see us!”

Of course, on the romantic front, ears have often been blown into, kissed or sucked, in the heat and height of passion. “Sweet nothings” are often whispered into these little critters, perhaps to some seductive effect.

In His mystery, magic and marvelous creativity, God made our ears in such a way that, at their best, they can catch sound waves, transmit them to the brain, give us cognitive recognition and keep us from losing our balance. As marvelous as that may be, however and as often as we may find secondary and tertiary uses for our ears, there is absolutely no guarantee that human beings will actually “hear” – no matter how beautiful or how otherwise functional their ears may be. The kind of hearing to which I am referring is the “hearing to understand” or the “receiving and comprehending” kind of hearing.

So often, even when I “hear the message,” I do not “get it.” So often, I can dismiss it, or ignore it or reinterpret it, so that the functional reality is that I do not actually “hear” what is being said to me at all. Unfortunately, the “Ear Zoom” just will not help me on that!

God, grant me the “ears to hear!”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Turkey & Dressing; Cultural Ramadan & Civil Religion’s Thanksgiving

Our early fall trip to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days of R&R provided a nice change of scenery and a break from the regular routine. As always, there were plenteous opportunities for people-watching and I tried to keep my cultural sensitivity eyes and ears open. Since our hotel was just minutes from the famous Blue Mosque and since we were in this predominantly Muslim city during Ramadan, I felt especially privileged. Each evening, as practicing Muslims were preparing to break their Ramadan fast, Janice and I were able to walk through Constantine’s famous Hippodrome area and experience, first-hand, this venerable religious custom.

The Hippodrome is no longer the center of public chariot racing which once attracted up to 100,000 spectators; many locals are oblivious to the reality that 30,000 died on these grounds in five days of urban warfare during the “Nika” (“Victory”) riots between the Green and Blue factions in 532 AD. Its proximity to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque makes it a prized spot for Ramadan fast-breaking; so it was quite congested every time we were there.

A family representative would arrive in the afternoon to stake out a picnic table or a smooth spot on the grass, so that relatives could celebrate together in close proximity to the imposing 17th century structure. The mosque was originally constructed to demonstrate the superiority of Islam in general and, most especially, over the Agia Sophia - the historic church, become mosque which, in the modern, secular Turkish state, is now a museum of history.

As sunset approached, the place grew more crowded. Bands played, TV crews reported from the scene and local political movements were omnipresent. Sidewalk vendors revved-up both the volume and the intensity of their sales pitches, especially since, by custom, hungrier-than-usual children are allowed to eat early. The call to prayer signaled the beginning of the feast for the adults. Although I did not understand the language, it was clear that, from a functional equivalent standpoint, the voice over the public address system was saying “dig-in!”

With the American civil religious custom of Thanksgiving soon to appear and another kind of turkey destined to occupy the center stage of many an American imagination, I found some interesting comparisons. Both feasts serve as an opportunity for the underwriting of intergenerational family solidarity, reinforced by a generic, non-specific, national religiosity. In Ramadan fast-breaking and Thanksgiving, participants are called to step aside from routine priorities and sit with family around a meal. In the end, each provides, both literally and figuratively, the warm feelings of a full belly and the comforting, ethnocentric sense that one’s ways and those of one’s culture are superior to all others. Both feasts follow predictable and well-understood patterns, passed down over hundreds of years. In both cases, the ultimate, potentially powerful and influential voice of personal faith is all too easily made subservient to a penultimate patriotism and a nationalism that, by its very definition, flies in the face of a supreme devotion to the Almighty.

Both Ramadan and Thanksgiving, in their cultural expressions, are easy venues for use by radical extremist nationalists. They are perfect opportunities for those intent on revisiting, if not rewriting, history. They can quickly be subverted by the not-so-subtle “selling” of a version of generic, theocratic patriotism which substitutes timeless, religious, idealistic means for pragmatic, contemporary, political ends. I can only wonder if many cultural Muslims at Ramadan, like many cultural Christians at Thanksgiving, leave the table with a smug sense of both their own piety and the superior virtue of their own, largely unexamined way of life.

With so much hate talk poisoning the environment these days coming from both radical, civil religionists in the States and extremist Muslims elsewhere, we might do well to recognize some of the essential weaknesses and strong similarities between the two faiths, as expressed in these feasts. After the turkey and before the football and the nap, maybe we should add a little reflection on the side.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Shelf-life of a Smile!

In downtown Athens, merchants feel free to extend their store area out on the sidewalk, in front of their shops. Many restaurants here routinely take over the public space in front of the place by installing tables and chairs, as well as “temporary” lights and, sometimes, a television set, the better to watch futbol games. Rarely are the property laws enforced here, so, much of the time, the business owner appropriates the public spaces that surround the business with impunity.

As a result, I was not surprised that, during my recent visit to the key shop (see previous post: The Infamous Incident of the Vanishing Ignition Key), I was asked to wait on the street. The shop owner had proudly planted on the busy sidewalk two chairs, a potted plant, a small “coffee table,” newspapers and a coffee pot – the better to entertain the customers while they waited to have copies of their keys made.

After thumbing through the newspapers, I chose to watch the foot traffic, as it sought to navigate around me and the improvised waiting room. The chance to watch folks in their unguarded moments, simply being themselves, is always a treat. What better way to spend a cool, late-September morning, while waiting to get a new key for my car.

Shortly after taking up my post on the pavement, I looked up the sidewalk to see a young woman with a baby in a carriage. About the time that I noticed her, another woman, apparently a friend, also noticed and stopped to chat and admire the baby. After their brief conversation, the mother and baby continued on their way and the woman baby-admirer began to walk toward me. I couldn’t help but notice the smile on her face, for the length of several feet, after seeing the baby. Obviously, the experience of seeing her friend and “oohing” and aahing” over the baby generated pleasant feelings within the woman and her face couldn’t keep from smiling. As she walked passed me she was still smiling!

It set me to wondering: what is the shelf life of a smile? How long will a smile remain in one’s heart or on one’s face? And, does it return, later in the day? I can’t say what the woman was thinking about before she saw the other woman and the baby. I could not begin to know what problems were worrying her, how many deadlines were crashing in on her at work or what pressures she was facing at home. I have no idea whether or not she and her kids had argued that morning, whether or not her sex life was fulfilling or if she and her parents, spouse or ex were currently getting along. Who knows if she was able to pay the rent or if her ideas at work were being rejected by the boss?

I only know that, after seeing a friend and admiring her child, the smile on her face lasted into the next block! Since I did not follow that woman around all day, I can’t tell if the smile ever returned, later in the day, as she remembered meeting the mother and child. Do you reckon she thought about that happy scene later that evening when she was getting ready for bed? I don’t know.

I just know that the happy experience at least momentarily brought joy to the woman’s face. Although my days of strolling babies on the street are (most likely) over, some way, somehow, I want to be the kind of person who, when he is met on the street, can cause a smile to appear on others’ faces - maybe for as long as two blocks!

What about you?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Say What??

Since it was my day to “cook,” I called Janice while waiting in the longer than desirable line at the bank. Just as she answered the phone, the electronic “Of course-your-are-waiting-in-line! That-is-not-our-concern! You-can-just-learn-to-like-it-or dislike-it!” sign-board lit up number 128; I was holding tightly my sequence number 150!

When Janice answered the phone, I told her that, since it was my day to “cook,” I had changed my mind about lunch. Instead of going to the Greek souflaki “joint,” to fetch two gyro pork sandwiches, I had unilaterally made an executive decision; since it was my day to “cook,” I was choosing to go to the KFC place around the corner. She seemed to handle my mid-course cuisine change with little bother, indicating in some less than enthusiastic tones that whatever I chose, as long as she did not have to cook it, was fine by her.

Fully confident now, that both my initiative and my selections would be honored on the “home front,” thirty minutes later, I completed my business transactions at the bank and proceeded toward the KFC store. As I walked in, the attractive, young, behind-the-counter attendant smiled and welcomed me to the store in perfectly good English. It is not at all unusual for young, minimum-wage employees at fast food establishments in Athens to speak English and to want to practice on those of us who, despite our best efforts, always look like non-Greeks.

Emboldened now, by her alleged English language fluency, I confidently approached the counter and said, in a clear and distinct articulation: “I want an order to go!” With a forlorn look of disdain on her pretty face, she frowned and said: “So sorry, our machine is broken!” Sensing that Greek would serve us both better, I shifted to my Hellenic glossary and said: “Den perasi!” (the rough equivalent in Greek of “It’s okay!”) Without missing a beat, she looked at me and said: “Thellete Coca Cola?” (Do you want a Coca Cola?)

Walking out later, with my order of hot wings and chicken strips (with a Coca Cola) under my arm, I smiled all the way home, just thinking about that interaction with my new Greek, teeny-bopper friend. This mixed up dialogue has now become a part of the lexicon of our lives. When I say something that Janice either doesn’t like or doesn’t understand, she says back to me: “So sorry, our machine is broken!” In response, I now say to her, “Thellete Coca Cola?”

I’m thinking that when it comes my turn to “cook” again, I might just say: “So sorry, our machine is broken!” or “Thellete Coca Cola?”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Infamous Incident of the Vanishing Ignition Key!

I finally located a parking place, a “country mile” (in the city of Athens) from where Janice and our guests exited the car. While they grabbed an outside table at Ambrosia, our favorite Greek taverna in Koukaki, one of our favorite sections of the city, I had gone “in search of” a place to hide the Hyundai.

The last thing that Janice said to me was, “Don’t forget the umbrellas!” Her normally accurate meteorological clairvoyance was in anticipation of what certainly seemed to forecast sprinkles of rain in the imminent future. Locating three nearly functioning umbrellas beneath the front seats, I hid the after-market GPS, climbed out of the vehicle and fumbled with the car key, in the futile attempt to lock the doors.

Falling from my hands, the key with its weighty electronic security apparatus seemed to sing a sinister song back at me as it landed on the street grate beneath my feet. In one of those slow motion moments, my already slow-motion brain joined up with my temporarily non-functioning vocal apparatus, itself a rare occurrence for me. Inaudibly, I whined and whimpered helplessly, as the cognitive reality of what I was witnessing slid slowly into some dusty, distant and slightly-used portion of my brain. It was a lot like being in a dream, where you try to scream, but can’t!

At last, something like “Oh, no!” (edited for publication) was released from deep within the chest of my fearful soul. Targeted to no one on the street (or in the world, at all), my angst was entirely directed internally, since I was, in that terrible moment, the sole companion to myself. In some combination of disgust, self-loathing and that universal sense of personal impotence, I watched in horror as the car key bounced on top of the sewer grate and ultimately fell through one of the too-large spaces between the heavy metal bars of the drain cover.

No dummy, I knew immediately that I was as deep in trouble as was my now-still-sinking car key in the sludge. Walking head down in the twilight streets, all the way to the restaurant, I rehearsed my embarrassing report and the plan for rescue that I had quickly devised. While Janice and the others enjoyed a great Greek meal, I, the lonely and long-suffering hero, would catch a cab back to the house, retrieve the other ignition key and return as the rescuer, hungry but successful. In her wisdom, it was patently obvious to Janice that we should simply manually lock the doors, leave the car on the street overnight, catch a cab home after dinner and return tomorrow by trolley to retrieve the car. No need for Bob’s heroics.

On the next day, I stopped by to see my neighborhood friend who owns the key store. In an intriguing combination of my stammering Greek and his “pretty good” English, he delivered the bad news. The replacement key would cost 80 Euros (over $100!) and he could not make the key unless I brought the car to him and proved that, indeed, I was the owner. It’s only money, right?

Well, I am convinced that there are “higher lessons” to be learned and that the moral consequences of this story are obvious and numerous. Talk amongst yourselves! Readers are encouraged to use their imaginations and build personal applications about life’s fragility, human incompetence, the role of “luck” or “karma” or human incompleteness or mankind’s propensity toward klutziness and the occasional lack of manual dexterity, even among the most deft and adept among us. Ever the martyr, I’ll accept the exalted role of moral pedagogue in this. Go ahead! Use me, if you must! Learn from my (all too human) mistakes!

For me, I’ll just point out that it did NOT, in fact, rain that evening. SO, in a stereotypically warped instance of self-serving male logic, I am convinced that the loss of the key is, in fact, all Janice’s fault. If she hadn’t insisted that I bring those umbrellas…. Well, you understand!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Going Down in Dee Feet!

It is definitely a personal first for me. Before this week, I have never had my feet analyzed – in public, at such a reputable, upstanding pseudo-medical establishment as a sports shoe store in the mall! Yep! I’m proud to say that my feet have “stepped up" and "stepped into” the scientific age!

Since we were going to the mall in search of new running shoes, Janice strongly suggested (as only wives can do) that I should temporarily abandon the near-universal male Greek practice of going sockless in summer. Before we left the house, I actually put on (clean) socks. Once at the spiffy sports shoe store, in front of God and anyone else who cared to look, I disrobed my pretty feet by removing the shoes I was wearing and the fresh socks (Told you I didn’t need to wear those socks!) and stood on this fancy, freshly sanitized “foot analyzer.”

I choose to believe it was because my unshod feet are, well, attractive (he modestly said); maybe it was just a slow day at the mall; I’m certain it is not because my feet are in any way eccentric; maybe Greeks don’t often get a close-up look at American toenails; but, for whatever reason, lots of passersby stopped passing by and gawked at my feet. So here I am, standing barefoot and, by the way, holding up each pant leg, so that they would not interfere with the podiatric photo-taking. It was certainly one of my prouder public moments since potty-training.

Buzzing, whirring and techno-electric sounds came from beneath my toes. A hush fell over the crowd. A faint, vibratory action only slightly titillated my tootsies. I continued to stand bendingly tall, despite my embarrassment. (“Never let ‘em see you sweat!”) After a few breathless moments, a suitable for framing picture of the bottoms of my feet appeared on the computer screen. Don’t laugh! Have you ever seen a scientifically accurate rendition of the undersides of your “under standing”?

Pavlo, (not Pavlov) the highly trained, 21-year-old, minimum-wage Greek guy who was trying to sell me a pair of shoes, looked intently at the picture. With a device that looked a lot like “etch-a-sketch” (from when my feet were much smaller and more suited to running and jumping), Pavlo drew computerized lines, took deep breaths, grunted knowingly and completed the scientific analysis of my feet. I resisted the temptation to tell Pavlo about my lower left hip, the slight curvature of my spine and other medically related conclusions arrived at by his professional colleagues in doctor’s offices on two continents.

At last, Pavlo gave a nod, indicating that the “test” was complete. With a couple of Star Wars-like computer sounds, he assumed full control of the Star Ship computer, charging the machine to come to its conclusions and to “beam up” its results, post haste. “There’s good news and not so good news, Mr. Neville!” Pavlo said. (They never get my name right over here!) “The good news is that your feet and (apparently) your stride are normal.” (What a relief! Put that on the resume’!)

“The not so good news is that you will need extra support and, of course, if you continue to run each day, you will want extra cushioning.” The bottom line of these conclusions is that (Am I surprised?) the better choice for my shoe purchase “would need to come from the ‘higher end’ of the price continuum!” I love it when salespersons speak scientific and multi-syllabic!

So, I bought some new running shoes AND two pairs of specialized running socks! But more importantly, each night, as I take off my shoes, go to bed and put my feet up, I can rest easy, knowing that my own personal “base-line” has been established. My records are now (and for eternity) stored in the company computer. And, every time I need to consider buying new running shoes, I need not fret; I can simply consult my friendly and favorite, globally-connected, sports shoe company.

Still standing on my own two feet, another day older in paradise!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dr. Robert A. Reid - My Friend and Colleague!

(Reprinted below is my eulogy which was read at the "Celebration of Life" in Carthage, Texas for Dr. Robert Addison Reid on Friday, July 30, 2010.)

It is said that the true measure of the magnitude of a tall tree can only be known when it is felled and lies beneath our feet. If that is true, then you and I are discovering that a soaring giant has fallen in our forest. Today, those of us who have lived within the blessed shade of the impact of Robert Addison Reid and who have enjoyed the lyrical sounds of music which happily came to life within him give witness to a personal and spiritual upheaval, even as we honestly acknowledge our loss.

Robert Reid was my friend and colleague for many years. I first knew him when he came to serve on the faculty of Houston Baptist University. At a school where high academic standards were the norm, where faculty were expected to share themselves as whole persons, beyond the classroom, and where the authentic Christian commitment of academic role models was strongly encouraged, Robert’s calling was easily and naturally expressed. As an administrative dean with daily relationships among students, I was pleased to have Robert serving closely with me on a significant committee which routinely called for discernment and wisdom in making critical decisions.

When, in God’s providence, it was time for me to leave the university, to serve as a Pastor in a Houston-area Baptist church, I recall seeing Robert, one day, in the hallway. With that gleam in his eye and his ever-ready grin, he called me aside, looked into my face and, borrowing some syntax from the King James Version of Scripture, said: “Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Both of us knew that Robert was signaling that he would like to serve with me on a church staff at some point in the future. We both laughed at his turn of phrase and happily acknowledged that such a prospect was, indeed, an attractive one.

Several years later, when the Minister of Music resigned at the Memorial Drive Baptist Church, I sought Robert out. I can still recall the joy I felt when I brought Robert’s name and resume to the Personnel Committee of our church, along with my highest recommendation.

From before we began to work together in the church, it was clear that we shared a passion for the priority of corporate worship. Robert understood and firmly agreed with me that acknowledging God in our midst, praising Him and seeking His face in worship were the church family’s first and highest concerns. Further, we covenanted together that we would devote significant energy, creativity and time to the planning and preparing of the worship experiences, each week.

I have worked with and planned worship with many ministers of music over the years. It is rare, indeed, when one finds the equal and authentic combination of both “minister” and “musician” in the same person. It is also rare when one discovers a gifted and creative worship planning partner who brings energy and innovation to the process of worship creation and implementation. Today, I can tell you honestly that Robert Reid, without question, was the best partner that I have ever had in this lofty aspect of my calling.

Robert’s role with me was far more than simply selecting a few hymns to “warm up” the congregation for the Pastor’s sermon. On the contrary, he keenly understood that the entire worship experience was our joint responsibility and that, although our roles were different, as partners in planning, each of us was free to suggest elements and ideas.

It was in this regard that I especially witnessed Robert’s many gifts and his penchant for spiritual curiosity and profound creativity. In those sometimes long and challenging worship planning sessions, where giant Post-it type posters lined the walls of my office, we sought the presence and leadership of the Holy Spirit, desiring to lead our congregation to offer its highest praise to God. We prayed together; we laughed together; we disagreed and agreed; we tried out possible scenarios; Robert often sang or whistled, to help me to catch the impact of a particular musical option; and, we struggled together until we had reached that acceptable and challenging worship plan that we could offer to the congregation. With courage and originality, Robert helped me to lead the congregation, adventurously, to new heights of devotion in their responsibility to honor God.

Robert was a man of impeccably high standards, both for himself and his music. He would settle for nothing but the highest offering of music, when given to God or as an expression of his stewardship to God. He was, of course, especially talented as a composer. So often, his original works served to express his God-given abilities and to advance the cause of Christ. My ministerial colleagues in Houston would marvel when I told them of Robert’s routine contributions to the worship life of our congregation.

Time will not allow me a full exploration of Robert’s many positive characteristics. He read broadly and was capable of and interested in a wide range of profound intellectual topics. He loved the turn of an English phrase. He valued our common Baptist heritage. He loved to pursue ideas and willingly explored many avenues of thought. He was eternally cheerful. Music, like sap in a tree, flowed through him. He whistled, he sang, he laughed and he caused others to do the same. So positive was his ethos, so optimistic was his outlook, so generous was his capacity to give to others.

The last time I saw Robert was last December. Janice and I had been invited, through the influence of Robert and Carolyn, to speak at the Central Baptist Church of Carthage, Texas. They wanted the church to hear about the challenging work to which God has called us in serving among Albanian immigrants in Athens, Greece. We spoke for a lunch meeting, for an evening meeting and enjoyed a quick meal with the pastor at a local restaurant. In between, Robert and Carolyn hosted us in their home. Absent-mindedly, I left my computer laptop at the Reid’s house.

On Thursday morning, just before leaving Henderson, Texas, I realized that I had left the laptop in Carthage. Over the telephone, Robert insisted that he drive to Henderson and bring the laptop. I would not allow it, since, the day earlier, he had driven to Henderson, picked us up and, late at night, returned us to Henderson. So, I drove back to Carthage to pick up the computer.

When I reached the Reid’s home, I knocked on the door at the garage. From the den, Robert shouted to me to “Come on in!” With that hospitality and familiarity characteristic of good friends, I made my way back to the den, where I found Robert sitting in his recliner. Immediately, I could see the weariness on his face. I realized that the previous day of hosting us had taken a toll on his tired body. Since Janice and I had to be in Austin later that day, I quickly retrieved the laptop, said my farewell and was engulfed in one of Robert’s “bear hugs.”

As Robert sat down again and allowed the weight of his body to find its familiar place in that recliner, I remembered another recliner in Houston, where Robert reported that, in the middle of many a sleepless night, he often had tried to rest. It is my last image of Robert on this side of glory. Today, as I remember this good man and grieve his loss, I am, nevertheless comforted by the realization that, at last, he has found a heavenly resting place and that his journey in this life is over.

Rest well, my friend Robert Reid!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Almost Cool Again!

As I write, it’s 7 AM on a Tuesday morning in Athens, Greece. Stepping out on the veranda of our Pangrati apartment, in the still, quiet, earlyness of the morning, it feels almost cool. I know that, even as I type, the blazing sun is rising over the Pentellic marble of the ancient Parthenon on the Acropolis, radiating the heat and generating higher temperatures; I am aware that, soon, the temperature will soar, no matter whether calculated in Celsius or Fahrenheit; but, it’s almost cool.

I am not stupid; I recognize that Athens, Greece in summer is identical to Houston, Texas in summer, without the humidity. I know that sweat is the constant companion of every one of my five million fellow Athenians, at least three million of whom are already in traffic gridlock or on crowded, underground metro cars, cursing each other in contemporary Greek. I know that hot weather is so common in summer that we begin every sentence with “Κάνει ζέστη, alla…” (“It’s hot, but ….”). I am certain that, when August arrives, it will be even hotter. But, at the moment, it’s almost cool!

“Almost” is admittedly “not quite,” but “almost” is far better than “not.” “Almost” is the stuff of which dreams are made. “Almost” is the gift and product of faith, memory, imagination and hope. “Almost” is, sometimes, a deliberate, willful decision to anticipate a better world. Without the capacity to articulate an occasional “almost,” none of us could anticipate an improved future or recall a treasured past.

Sure! I’ll agree! “Almost” is also the repository of disappointment, sometimes yielding to despair. “Almost” carries with it the potential for hope deferred which can so easily become hope denied. But, “almost cool” means that I haven’t entirely forgotten what “cool” is like. “Almost cool” means that, within my sweaty breast there rests a fanciful vision of a more comfortable morning or evening, somewhere in the not too distant days to come.

It’s almost cool because a rain shower visited us yesterday. It’s almost cool because scarce wind has travelled down from the surrounding hillsides and the air is cleaner for a while, this morning. It’s almost cool and, as a result, I can sit on the veranda and watch the little pinwheels spin in the slovenly air currents, even though their movement is more likely the result of the furious flapping of a few thousand dirty pigeon wings.

But, it’s almost cool again in Athens and, in a micro manner, I am celebrating. It’s certainly too hot to jump up and down and the almost coolness surely doesn’t warrant strenuous exercise. But, I am sensing the slightest possibility that the fall is coming and, for this, I am grateful. This morning, I am saying “thank you” for predictability and for routine regularity. While climate change is an undisputed reality and global warming must be acknowledged, sitting in a semi-comfortable chair on my “front porch to the world,” I am here to say that it is almost cool again in Athens!

And, you?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Have Told You A Thousand Times Not to Exaggerate!

On the budget airline which Janice and I recently used, it was apparent that management was trying to retrieve as much cash as possible from “cheapo” flyers like us. We could have paid extra to check our bags, to board first and to enjoy an in-flight snack.

In addition to the attempt to swell alternate income streams, “product placement” was also evident. As I settled into my tight-quarters seat and tried to ignore the larger-than-average, sweaty guy seated next to me, while simultaneously attending to the overhead announcement encouraging me to fasten my seat belt and locate the emergency escape exits, my travel-weary eyes met the advertisement that had been affixed to the back of the seat in front on me. With recognizable food label logos promoting the presence of several brands which could be purchased mid-flight, the velcro-attached sign said, with a flourish: “Now Available on Board!”(In the small print which followed, the sign then said: “Subject to availability!”

Methinks that this is more than mere marketing. In this age in which language in general and public rhetoric in particular seem to have been severely devalued and their credibility stretched beyond recognition, we have grown to accept such obvious linguistic inconsistencies as the message in front of my seat. Many people trying to communicate a message these days seem to have learned too well the old argumentation device which I was taught years ago in my varsity debate days in college; subliminally, you can get your message across by exaggeration, hyperbole or outright stretching of the truth; just be prepared immediately to take it back. Like an attorney getting his point in the ears of the jury before the opposing lawyer appeals to the judge, many today are willing to say “too much,” followed by a quick retraction.

Almost routinely these days, politicians say outrageous things about their opponents or those in another party and, as soon as public outcry demands, simply take back the statement by saying that they “mis-spoke,” that they were “confused” or that their remarks may have been “taken out of context.” Even religious leaders now seem willing to say horrible things about those with whom they differ, especially those from another religion; only later, with mock sincerity, they issue statements like “I am so sorry if the things that I might have said may have caused others harm” or “I regret that some have seen malice in my innocent remarks” or “It is unfortunate that some have mis-construed my statement.”

Marketeers, politicians, religious leaders and anyone utilizing words to express a grasp of truth must make much better use of language than this. How long will we allow persons, prejudices and platforms to be advanced by the use of this cheap, shoddy perversion of the spoken or written word, at the expense of both truth and clarity? When will the general public reach the maturity to acknowledge such devices for exactly what they are?

Wish I knew!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Playing to the Crowd

I recently read a theory as to why the old Globe Theatre, in London, was likely built “in the round,” with the audience in a circle surrounding a platform for the actors; it was because most of the actors got their start performing on the street. I also learned that, in contrast to Elizabethan life in general, with its many classes and much social distance, the Globe seems to have been a most egalitarian operation, allowing for common folk, as well as nobility, to view the show. For pennies a performance, large numbers of people from all classes could attend the performances of Shakespeare’s works. In addition, with no place “behind the curtain,” the Globe’s actors were required to do their dramas with few props.

In the theatre, the audience is often separated from the actors and the stage by a curtain and much distance. We are allowed to see only that presentation of the drama which the playwright, actors and stage management determine in advance that we should see. Indeed, some of the “magic” and “mystery” of theatre depends on the subtle manipulation of setting, perspective, lighting and sounds. But, reflecting the true life experiences of the “street actors,” the Globe was built very close to the audience, with what we might, today, refer to as a 360 view.

While I am no thespian, nor am I skilled or experienced in the science of staging, I think I much prefer the “in the round” and “up close and personal” approach to both theater construction and life construction. If, as the Bard is reported to have said, “"all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” I am drawn toward the more honest and intimate way of “acting” life so that the whole person can be known, up close and whatever “props” are necessary can be seen for what they are.

Admittedly, all of us are attracted to “staging” in life. We like to time our “entrances,” make “dramatic exits.” “stand in the spotlight,” protect our backsides, utilize “props” generously and hide behind certain “screens.” We don’t like being “upstaged” and, quite naturally, we want to present our “best side” to others, controlling our “exposure.” There is, of course, a certain advantage to keeping the “behind the scenes” views obscured from the public, “playing” by a certain “script” and showing only what one wants to be seen.

On the other hand, each one of us needs, also, to “play” our lives before a select “audience” of folks who know us well and who can handle all sides of the presentation of our lives. In the honest commerce of “the street,” there should be little room for pretense and an openness to …, well, openness!

The longer I live, the more comfortable I have become with the “character” that, by God’s grace and my volitional choices, has developed within me; I hope that the characterizations which my life have taken on are an honest reflection of a central, foundational core. There is no doubt that I have been called upon to play a variety of roles, but, I have always wanted my “part” of this drama that we call life to be transparent and an honest reflection of the person on the inside – no masks and no pretend, notwithstanding an occasional touch of “drama.” I have noticed that this is also true of others who have lived a while and have stepped up to “play” a few “roles.” We “veteran actors” have less desire for makeup and little patience for pretense. We certainly don’t want to be “type cast,” preferring, rather, to respond to our “cues” and “speak our piece” with some sort of integrity until the house lights come up and the curtain of our humanity comes down.

“Break a leg!”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Simple, but Loud, Joy!

With Janice in the States, I am spending an exorbitant amount of each day’s early hours alone in the house. Most times, the television is my rattling, prattling, background audio companion, running off at the mouth, reporting in both English and Greek, the pressing problems and acute concerns of our ash-cloud interrupted, deficit-ridden, confidence lacking, globally warmer, much-conflicted world.

This morning, I remembered my often overlooked electronic companion, the CD player and that Celtic CD with the matching rapturous harp melodies and the energetic jigs played on a liberated Irish fiddle. I “juiced” the volume up loud on that thing, the better to hear it while in the shower and afterwards.

A few minutes later, dressed and ready for the day, I left the place for the run to the bank and to pay the bills, inadvertently leaving that machine running at full blast. Standing in the hallway, pondering the critical existential choice between the stairs or the elevator, I surprised myself with the abrupt realization that, from the neighbor’s perspective, the music was, shall we say, a little loud. Knowing that the queue at the bank was already forming, however, I hustled on down the stairs.

After two banks and a wait for my number to be called at the Post Office, I returned to our fourth-floor place that the Greeks and other Europeans, in their wisdom, insist on describing as being on the third floor. By the time I reached the second (or first) floor, I could hear and feel the melodious, mellifluous, yet lively music. Standing on the visitor’s side of my front door, I was greeted by an almost visceral tuneful salutation. Opening the door, the full weight of that otherwise soothing sweetness smacked me in the ears and sinus cavities, welcoming me home.

While I’m trying to be sympathetic to my neighbors (I really am!), I am also enjoying the high-voltage music. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much! Right?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


A couple of months ago, she came to “our” apartment - the one that she owns and we rent from her – to ensure that the old yucca plants on the veranda were removed safely. We all recognized that the leggy plants should be extracted from their fourth floor flower boxes. Having once provided cool shade and green beauty for the apartment’s residents, over time, they had grown up and out, tall and slender, with their pointed, long leaves now vanished from sight and reaching almost to the neighbor’s veranda on the floor above. While the plants themselves had grown leggy and skinny with age, their roots had become big and bound in their containers, threatening to burst open the concrete boxes. The combined weight of so many bottom-heavy, tall plants was now so great that we genuinely feared that, some day soon, they would threaten the structural integrity of the expansive patio, and break off from their exalted post on its edge.

So, Louiza came over to keep a close watch while the Albanian man carefully unearthed the aging plants. Because her son has a new home, she harbored a hope to recycle the old plants and move them to his new place. It was the last time on earth that we would see Louiza. We actually have seen her precious little in the nearly five years that we have rented the place from her. Through her English-speaking daughter, Maria, she was always responsive to our needs and willing to assist in any way when we called on her. But, the truth of the matter is that we have had very few problems with this great place to live while we are doing our work with Albanian immigrants in Athens. Increasingly, as we have gotten our Greek “legs” beneath us, we have taken care of the repairs that have occasionally been necessary. We usually just call Maria and Louiza, tell them the problem and our proposed solution. They generally agree and we have the work done and reduce our monthly rent check appropriately.

Just two weeks ago, both the refrigerator and the dishwater choose to go “out.” When it was evident that the appliances, purchased thirty years ago, needed to be replaced, Louiza went shopping for us and purchased new ones and arranged to have them delivered and installed – all on her own Euro nickel! In fact, on the very day of her unexpected stroke, Louiza was scheduled to come by the apartment to make certain that the installation was correct and that we were pleased with her new purchases. But, she didn’t come. Only later did we learn that she had suffered a massive stroke from which she would, sadly, never recover.

Last week, we attended the funeral services for this 61 year-old, strong and delightful, hospitable Greek friend. The intricate and somewhat mysterious protocol of Greek Orthodoxy, though strange and different to our American Protestant eyes and ears, could not disguise the genuine pain and powerful grief that generally gathers, like closet dust, around death in any culture. As “strangers” and “foreigners,” we are also fellow human beings and folks who have lost a friend. We grieve far more than the loss of a landlady. We have lost a kind and caring, competent and considerate companion on this journey through life.

Refrigerators and dishwashers and yucca plants eventually come to the end of their service. So, too, human beings, who were never intended to live forever on this planet. Our loss is great; the family’s loss is greater. But, together, we have powerful memories of days gone by. We have character-building relationships and soul-shaping influences that are more potent than life or death. And we also have hopes for eternity. Human beings, who place their trust in Jesus Christ, actually dare to believe that aging yucca plants, unbound from their earthly “boxes,” may prosper and thrive again. So be it with Louiza!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

City Welfare

The tragic events of this past week in Athens, Greece have been broadcast all over the world. Only the most myopic, distracted or ADD-afflicted among us could have escaped the report of widespread public demonstrations in this city, in response to the proposed austerity measures which are, in themselves, a response to Greece’s crushing financial woes. As part of a plan which caused the reluctant EU and the IMF to agree to provide “bail out” funds to Greece to the tune of 150 billion Euros in the next three years, Greece’s most recently-elected political leadership, with a Joannis-come-lately sense of righteous frugality, promised to push through legislation intended to reduce significantly the country’s unacceptable, looming deficit-to-GDP. Greek citizens, especially those employed in the public sector who can expect to see their salary checks cut from 14 to 12 each year and can no longer anticipate retiring at age 50, were understandably upset.

Of course, public demonstrations and strikes in this “cradle of democracy” are as regular as pigeon-droppings and usually more easily tolerated. Greeks make an outdoor sport of protests and strikes from workers at all levels of society. Ordinarily, they are peaceful, with resort to violence coming only occasionally and then, from students and others urged on by anarchists and far left groups who seem to have a vested interest in both protest and hostility.

At the height (or was it the depth?) of the protests, however, a home-made incendiary device was thrown into a bank and three innocent civilians (bank workers required to work through the demonstrations outside) were killed as a result. This certainly raises the ante and increases the level of concern.

The Albanian immigrants with whom I work, already at risk, due to powerful discrimination against them, are likely to feel the first effects of Greece’s austerity measures. Reflecting on their situation, my mind went to another group of immigrants. Years ago, Jewish exiles in Babylonia were also forced to live as the underclass among people who found every reason to dislike them. To their dismay, the Jewish exiles learned that they would be required to live as aliens among their former enemies for many years.

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking a word from God, told them to settle-in and expect to live in this adopted country for at least 70 years. They were told to marry, buy land and try to make themselves at home. Underwriting all of this advice, the prophet said: “Seek the welfare of the city into which you have been called, for in its welfare, you will find your own welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Shalom, that quintessential Jewish word, is used here. While shalom can be translated peace or welfare, it means far more than simply the absence of conflict. It is normally understood to encompass a mutual sense of wholeness and justice.

What a superb idea for all of us in this conflict-ravaged city. Lets work together to seek the welfare of this place! Immigrant or native-born! Public or private worker! Those soon-to-be subject to economic pressures or those who already have been for years! If each of us and all of us could recognize that our best welfare is to be found in working for the good of all concerned, not just a privileged few, things might just change! Hope so!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Three Wheels, Two Generations, One Hope!

In that intermediate, in-between time connecting sunset and dark, I came up behind them on a congested street in the Koukaki section of Athens. Even without the ostensibly mandatory red tail light, I could tell that it was a handmade, small truck-like vehicle, wired and spot-welded together. The two tiny, rear wheels sagged helplessly; I think I heard them cry out, beneath their far-too-heavy load.

Looking at the used auto batteries, bathroom porcelain and various shapes and sizes of metal piled haphazardly (and dangerously) into the tiny truck bed, I knew that the immigrant driving the thing was collecting recyclable junk from the public trash containers. I was neither surprised nor disappointed when, at the last minute, he pulled-in beside the next dumpster and began to poke around in it. A homesteader in Athens’ underground economy, who probably lives in one of the cardboard shanty-towns, he was planing to collect some needed cash from the assortment of cast-off items he had so perilously scavenged from the streets.

When I happily passed by this makeshift contraption, on to what I assumed to be my much more important business, I noticed that the front end of the thing was a motor scooter. The mini-truck bed had been affixed to the front wheel and handlebars of what my Albanian friends refer to as a motori. Compounding my surprise, I noticed that the driver was holding an infant on his lap. The baby couldn’t have been more than 12 months old! In my rear view mirror now, the happy-as-a-clam father was laughing and talking with the baby, while simultaneously steering, braking and preparing to dismount from the motor scooter-cum-pickup truck.

My first reaction was to let loose a generous dose of righteous indignation. How could any responsible father risk this tender infant by precariously placing him on a bony knee, while navigating the busy city streets in that contraption?! Then, my holier than thou resentment morphed into practical curiosity. How could the man shift gears, apply the hand brakes and steer that thing while cradling with his left forearm, elbow and palm, this squiggly, child?

And then, in a swift, mini synaptic passage, I became slightly more reflective. I began to imagine how this unique “take-your-child-to-work” scenario could have happened. What forces, social, familial, economic and political, contrived to create such a scene? What does a man feel when, through what is patently a multiplicity of causal factors, he is called upon to babysit a child while simultaneously doing the “trash run”? Where is Mama? Big sis? Big brother?

I spent most of my drive time thinking about the father’s attitude. How does a father arrive at the place where he can celebrate the child, even despite these less than ideal conditions? What messages does that father want to send to his most recent newborn? In a world that is likely to communicate to that child that s/he is a worthless inconvenience, that the struggle to survive would have been better off without him or her, how does a father laugh and embrace the precious infantile presence? What spiritual dexterity is required to authenticate humanity and to demonstrate a positive receptivity in close proximity to a trash dumpster?

Just wondering!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Search of the Bunny!

By that title and in deference to the upcoming Easter celebrations, one could be excused for thinking that these words refer to the quest for the Easter Bunny. At a glance, it might appear that I am musing today about the mystical rabbit that is historically associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As an Easter symbol, the bunny likely originated in Alsace and the upper portions of the Rhineland when the Holy Roman Empire ruled that part of Germany. The first rabbit reports in connection with Easter appeared in German publications early in the 1600’s. Later, German settlers introduced the critter to America as they settled in the Pennsylvania Dutch region, during the 1700’s. Since then, the tradition has multiplied like …, well, like rabbits!

But, I am actually on the hunt for another, perhaps less folkloric and less notable of bunnies, known as the Energizer Bunny. Remember him? A marketing icon and totem for Energizer batteries, he actually originated as a parody of yet another bunny. The previously existing Duracell bunnies, first seen in ads in Australia and Europe, were battery-powered, drum-playing, toy rabbits who gradually slowed to a stop until a copper-top battery was inserted. In the “gospel according to Energizer,” however, Mr. Bunny enters that same scene, beating a larger drum, waving a mallet over his head and outlasting all other bunnies. The clear critique was that Duracell batteries, with their carbon tops, were inferior to the alkaline batteries from the Energizer folks. Battery wars!

Since those days, however, “Energizer Bunny” has entered the vernacular as a symbol for a person who seems indefatigable, with a personal power source that “keeps on keeping on!” Somewhat similar to the wristwatch commercial that once applauded a timepiece that “takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” in contemporary parlance, this bunny-type person possesses an endless source of perseverance. That is precisely the bunny that, in my weariness, I am always in need of!!

Although the Energizer Bunny has appeared in more than 115 commercials on our television sets, the honest to bunny-rabbit reality is that this type of vigor within persons is as rare and difficult to discover as “Harvey,” the giant rabbit companion of Elwood P. Dowd, played so convincingly in the 1950 movie by Jimmy Stewart. As a likeable drunk, Mr. Dowd swears to an intimate companionship with a six-foot, three and a half inch, invisible pooka, described in the movie as a “fairy spirit in animal form, always very large; a benign, but mischievous creature very fond of rumpots (and) crackpots ….”

Whether or not we have a penchant for alcohol, rum or crack or are crackpots who are afflicted with some other, more explicitly psychological expression of creaturely dependence, all of us could sorely make use of a colleague like Harvey and an energy source like the Energizer Bunny. I mean, where do we find the companion in our creaturehood who can instill within us the capacity to “stay at it,” despite the inevitable setbacks and trip-ups of life, many of which are self-induced? John Steinbeck wrote of travelling with Charlie, his dog; Robert Lewis Stevenson travelled with a donkey. You and I need an egg-bearing bunny!

Since I live in Greece, I am well aware that the Greek Orthodox Church encourages the giving and receiving of red-painted Easter Eggs, in recognition of the blood of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and the renewal of life offered by the death-conquering, resurrected Christ. So maybe, I am seeking an Easter bunny, after all. But this bunny should not be of the “hippity, hoppity” genre; I need the hard-nosed, hare-brained, grit and determination kind. Ironically, he must, in this sense, be more tortoise than hare; less Playboy Bunny with a cotton tail and more of a tough, street-smart rabbit with a mallet; he must be less Beatrix Potter and more the persevering, stronger than death and life, resurrected Jesus, “energizing” kind of rabbit.

Perhaps you think me a Mad Hatter or as mad as a March hare! Please understand: I carry no rabbit’s foot in my pocket; I expect no magical dispensation from harm. But, by God’s grace, I am discovering in my warrings and weariness, the Companion on the journey who is the Source of that eternal, staying power for which the highest meaning of all of the eggs and rabbits are but symbols. This Easter, I am hoping that you, likewise will be ready to find and anxious to welcome that empowering fellow-traveler for life, despite the snares, lairs and rabbit traps!

In the Jimmy Stewart movie, Elwood P. Dowd says: "Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space but any objections." What objections remain in you?

Got rabbit?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Strike Out for Greece!

By now, much of the world is aware of Greece’s nasty little secret! After many years of “creative” accounting and hiding the facts, it is now apparent that Greece is in debt, big time. Since fudging on taxes is a way of life here, and many Greeks routinely under-report their actual incomes for tax purposes, it will come as no surprise to learn that the government, too, has been less than forth-coming! In a country where cheating on taxes is so common that two different receipts are offered by merchants (one in which taxes are paid and the other in which everyone agrees to “look the other way”), the recent news that the national debt is far higher than has been heretofore reported is not at all unexpected.

By now, you also know that the European Union, after years of patiently working with Greece to get its deficit and debt under control, has, at last, begun to apply blunt pressure on this “birthplace of democracy.” At the recent, called elections, the presiding political party was cast out and the new governing Grecians, themselves having been in power often in the past, have gallantly announced that the dirty house will be cleaned and that strict procedures are in the works. Austerity measures are hastily being pushed through the Parliament in a manner that will probably negatively impact the cash flow of almost everyone in the short-run, except, presumably, the cash-strapped government!

In a country where strikes and protests are as ubiquitous as pigeon poop, the announcement that taxes will be raised and that certain benefits will be curbed, such as lifetime job security and 14 months of salary each year for government employees, has been met with howls of public protest. In the “Grecian formula,” everyone strikes over something or other. The trash collectors, bankers, physicians, bus drivers and lawyers strike routinely. Often, general strikes are scheduled far in advance, sometimes for reasons that are not yet clear at the time of the strike forecast; the assumption is that sufficient grievances will have surfaced in the intervening months, so that a future strike will be necessary.

It is fittingly ironic that the most recent group to announce a strike in Greece in the protest over the need to levy more taxes has come from the tax-collectors themselves! While the logic of this could be difficult to extrapolate, the bean counters in the tax offices are taking off a couple of days in deference to the “unfairness” of the proposed, rigorous government measures.

If it were not so serious, I would be laughing!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Feathery, Orange Dinosaurs

A recent report on CNN International highlighted the latest scientific discoveries about dinosaurs. The scientists used electron microscopic tools for sophisticated analysis of tiny flecks of pigment among the ancient, fossilized remains of the Sinosauropteryx and Sinornithosaurus. The results, based on samples uncovered in a dig in northeast China, suggest that pre-flying dinosaurs actually had feathers, and that they probably used them for purposes other than flight.

In addition, the report summarizes the scholarly consensus on the color of these “critters.” While you and I may spend little time worrying over the actual patina of prehistoric animals, this is, nevertheless, important to scholars. To the scientists’ apparent surprise, evidence indicates that these dinosaurs were colored a kind of orangey ginger! Who knew?

More intriguing to me, however, was not the supposed colors of the creatures; what interested me, as a non-scientist, about this news segment was an accompanying interview with little children. When asked “What color do you think dinosaurs were?” the kids resolutely answered, “purple.” After the interview, the reporter suggested(correctly, I suspect!) that their impressions about dinosaur color were most certainly influenced by their exposure to the TV dinosaur, Barney – the soft, non-feathery and loveable cartoon character creature brought into their living rooms by PBS Kids. Who can blame the children for thinking that dinosaurs are purple when the only one that they have seen and the one that they think they “know” personally is … well, purple!

Methinks a shrewd epistemological principle has been uncovered here amid the rubble of ancient fossils and modern kids’ colorized impressions. All of us - little kids and big kids - “know” primarily that to which we have been exposed. Even innocent children, typically so open to mystery and possibility, can uncritically become captive to their own limited perceptions. Regardless of what the truth may actually be, like the children, you and I can easily become convinced of the accuracy of what we think we “know,” based on what we have seen or experienced and based on our interpretation or someone else’s interpretation of our sense experience!

When looking out at the world, we generally begin with the unexamined presupposition that our reality perceivers are correct. We all have a deep-seated need to believe this – whether or not it is, in fact, true! And, of course, this is very helpful. It allows us to proceed through the universe with some confidence that we actually “know” things and that we are in touch with “reality.” I would not want to try to navigate life without this.

The problem arises, however, when our sense of reality is as far off as that of the kids who honestly believe that dinosaurs were purple. Since all of us are susceptible to this “perception is reality” affliction, it would behoove us all to be a little more humble and a tad more open in our erstwhile confident assumptions about “what is” and “what isn’t!” Sadly, but most assuredly, we have all narrowed the world and the realities both within and beyond it far too much by this all-too-human tendency to “lock-in” reality to our penultimate perceptions. One of my favorite verses from Holy Scripture has always been Paul’s candid acknowledgement: “We know in part.” (1 Corinthians 13:9a)

Wonder what might happen if, like an uncluttered child, still filled with wonder, curiosity and imagination, and with all due respect for the trustworthiness of my own perceptions, I went out into my world tomorrow with fewer presuppositions about what dinosaurs might look like?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

B.Y.O.B. at Church!

A couple of weeks ago, we observed a very special anniversary at the Greek Evangelical Church in Athens where we regularly and deliberately worship. The church recognized eighty-six years of life. Churches, like all social institutions, are shaped by history and by the actions of other social institutions in their milieu. As evidence, this particular church was birthed in the midst of and at least partly as a consequence of a gigantic social upheaval. During the period that some refer to as the Great Catastrophe, powerful forces in the region and beyond made decisions directly impacting the Greeks.

One historian has recounted that, by September, 1922, an estimated 30,000 Greek refugees were arriving in the city of Athens every day, in fear of the Turkish army. The Great Population Exchange, agreed to the following year at Lausanne, meant that 1.3 million Greeks would be expelled from Turkey to Greece, while 800,000 Turks would go from Greece to Turkey. In this instance, a rarely successful social tactic known as partition was once again attempted as a solution between conflicting ethnic groups. Despite the upheaval that ensued from such a massive, two-way migration, our Greek Evangelical friends, however, find much redemption in it, because it was the cultural and historical womb in which their church was conceived. God-fearing and non-Orthodox Greek Christians who had formerly been members of Greek Evangelical churches, especially in Smyrna, Turkey, came together and, under God’s leadership, formed what is now known as the Second Greek Evangelical Church in Athens.

At church that day, special activities were planned. Since it was the first of these observances in which Janice and I had been privileged to participate and since we love this church and share the members’ happiness on having survived for so many years, we looked forward to the celebratory event. The big affair was to be a luncheon, somewhat like what Americans call a “Pot Luck Dinner.” Everyone was encouraged to bring a special plate with enough food for their family and then some; the tasty dishes were stowed away in a room adjacent to the worship center. At last, when worship was completed, with proper thanks and commitment given to God for the past, present and future, tables were brought into the worship center and all were invited to the big feast!

Midway through the worship service, earlier that day, I noticed something that, in all my church experience, I have never before seen. Standing to sing the Greek hymns, I noticed that the man on the pew in front of me had brought a bottle of wine. With no attempt to hide the bottle, there it was, “as big as Dallas!” In Greece, of course, it is common for guests who come for dinner to bring a bottle of wine for the meal. Later, when the food was spread that day and all of us gathered around the improvised tables, the Pastor and one of the church’s Elders came to our table to offer wine.

I could not help but compare this to my previous experiences in Baptist churches in the South, where official resistance to alcohol and wine is usually so stringent that, contrary to our supposed strict and literal interpretations of Scriptures, even Communion wine is not really wine, but grape juice! In my experience, if/when Baptists bring their own bottles, they are usually much more discreet than my Greek brother!

I’m still reflecting on that experience and wondering what, if anything, it means. It reminds me, of course, that different religious groups, impacted equally by their life and social experiences, select varying social behaviors to resist and yet others to embrace. If the partitioning of conflicting groups is never the ultimate solution to long-held animosity, then how can it be helpful to partition the Christian family by selected social behaviors and the animosities that so often accompany them? Of course, it is always easier for me to make decisions for other people; so, I am confident that Greeks and Turks must learn to get along while living in close proximity. Likewise, I wonder if Christians who drink in front of each other, those who do not and those who drink nothing at all must also avoid partitioning their lives and find a way to accept and respect each other, regardless of which interpretations of the Bible they choose to emphasize or ignore. After all, in Christ, we have all been invited to the banquet!